How my research into family history became a novel

Marion Reynolds explains how her family history inspired her to write her novel A Soldier’s Wife

Like many people, I didn’t delve into my family history until I was past middle age. When you are young, the past is another country and you are too involved with education, career, partner and children to have time to think about your ancestors. With middle age, for most of us, comes time to think, especially about the influences that made you who and what you are. You begin to wonder about your parents and their lives before you knew them, your grandparents and the generations before them. If you are like me, you leave it until it is almost too late, when the people who are the links with your family history are dead and gone.

For most of my childhood, I lived in a small two up, two down house on the north side of the city of Dublin. Many of our neighbours had other relatives living on the same street or on one of the neighbouring streets. It was a close community where the children played “Relievio” or held impromptu concerts in the street or spent the summer  days rolling down the hills in  the People’s Gardens of the Phoenix Park. My grandparents were old when I was born; I was the daughter of their youngest child. They seldom talked about their lives when they were young. At times, I caught glimpses into their past: a shred of luminous silk   which I found at the back of the wardrobe, a box of medals which I played with, my grandfather wearing a red poppy when no one else on the street did, a whispered story about burials at sea. A picture in an ornate frame which hung over the sideboard intrigued me: my grandfather looking dashing in uniform, my grandmother elegant in a beautiful lace dress, a blonde baby between the two of them. Who was she, I asked? “That’s my first baby, Nancy, she died when she was a baby, when we were on our way to India”, I was told.

My grandparents died and I grew up. I didn’t really think about their past until a cousin began to investigate my grandfather’s military history with the Connaught Rangers. We discovered that he had also served in Cyprus and North Africa before he met my grandmother. They spent seven years together in India and he served in Flanders during WW1, leaving my grandmother and her children at home for four years.  I began to look at the dates of his military career and realised that he and my grandmother had lived through some of the most momentous events in Irish and European history.  I knew that I wanted to write their story. How to write it was the next question. I could have written it as a memoir but there were too many pieces of the jigsaw missing. I decided to write it as a novel which would give me the freedom to be creative when I didn’t know the real facts.

I had always been a writer, of short stories, articles, reviews and interviews but this would be my first novel. Then I began to think about how to write it. Apart from the fact that  I know little about military matters, I felt that there were enough excellent books about that period of history which gave the male point of view. I decided to write from my grandmother’s point of view, to try to give some insight into the lives of the thousands of Irish women who stayed at home while their husbands went to war. I then began to research my grandmother’s life. I knew that she had grown up on Lord Lucan’s estate in Castlebar, Co Mayo where her father was the lodge keeper. I visited Castlebar and found the ruins of the Lucan home but not the gate lodge which had been demolished. My grandmother’s siblings were all girls which made it more difficult for me to trace their descendants. The local library was very helpful and found a number of newspaper articles which mentioned my relatives. I realised that my grandmother had had a genteel upbringing and worked as a maid/ governess with the chidren of Lord Lucan. I knew that she enjoyed the years in India, the luxury and the servants. How had she adjusted to life in a small house in a poor area of Dublin?

Family lore told me that my grandfather had been in Flanders for all of WW1 with only one trip home. While he was away, the family lived through the momentous events of 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War. My grandmother had made occasional reference to things like hearing Michael Collins speak. “He was the most handsome man I ever saw” she told me. She also attended the funeral of Arthur Griffith. Though she remained pro-British, her children became nationalists, which must have created tension in the home.

I always loved history and enjoyed verifying the events which impinged on my family. The historical facts in my novel are as accurate as I can make them. Some of my family history has been changed because many of the grandchildren are still alive. I changed the names and genders of my aunts and uncles but the events are real.  When telling my story, I tried to be non-partisan and to reflect the different, legitimate points of view of the different opinions at the time. I hope that I have succeeded.

 

 

A Soldier’s Wife by Marion Reynolds was published on 1st May by Indigo Dreams Publishing at £ 8.99 or €10.99 in Ireland and is available from my website www.marionhreynolds.com or fromindependent bookshops and Amazon.